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Bad jokes aside, Bradley Wiggins’ success is a lesson for renewable energy innovation

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Last week’s ‘joke’ at a children’s charity ball was not Sir Bradley Wiggins’ finest moment. But cast your minds back a year and the reason for his knighthood is quickly remembered. Just 10 days after becoming the first Brit to win the Tour de France, he won his fourth Olympic gold medal. So dominant was Wiggins that many questioned just how he did it.

We didn’t need to wait long for an answer. In the wake of victory, Team GB’s performance director David Brailsford explained the philosophy of “marginal gains” behind the team’s success: “If you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

As a method of improvement it offers no quick fix. Based on hard graft, trial-and-error and incremental steps forward, the process was not exciting, but the results proved glorious.

And this applies to renewable energy technologies as much as it does to sport.

A model of innovation for renewable energy

Over the last two decades we have seen extraordinary improvements and cost reductions in wind and solar power technologies – such that they are now moving rapidly from fringe-player status to major challengers to the status quo.

Like Team GB’s success, this has not happened through spectacular leaps forward. Improvements have been incremental rather than radical, and they have happened as thousands upon thousands of wind turbines and solar panels have been designed, manufactured and erected in subtly different ways over time.

The need to actually do something so that we can learn from it and do it differently next time lies at the heart of the innovation process. It is the reason wind turbines have reduced in price by 7% for every doubling of the number made. This phenomenon of cost reduction driven by ‘learning-by-doing’ holds true time and again across varied technologies and industries. However it doesn’t just happen on its own.

Innovation needs a helping hand

When new technologies are first developed there is often no way they can compete unassisted with incumbents, even if their long-term potential is to be cheaper, cleaner and better. Without extra financial support from government in the form of subsidy, they simply wouldn’t get built. No learning would be possible. Innovation wouldn’t happen. Costs wouldn’t come down.

Ask yourself, could Team GB have made all their incremental improvements if they were never allowed on their bikes? In the same way, getting renewable technologies deployed in large numbers is key to their ultimate success.

Such support is especially warranted when it comes to our energy system, because no level playing field exists. Fossil fuels generators, for example, have had over 100 subsidy-fuelled years to bring their own costs down. Our grid was built for big power plants not dispersed renewables. Our market fails to price the cost of environmental damage. The list could go on.

Of course subsidies shouldn’t carry on for ever. They should reduce over time as innovation pushes costs lower, exactly as is happening at the moment with wind and solar power.

But why is it important to make these points right now?

A risky idea, detached from reality

Because once again in recent weeks some high-profile figures have argued against support for our most advanced renewable technologies like wind and solar.

Two weeks ago, for example, Danish author and self-proclaimed ‘sceptical environmentalist’ Bjorn Lomborg suggested on BBC Radio 4 that rather than subsidising our current “inefficient” renewables, we should put our money into researching and developing a new generation of low-carbon technologies instead.

He is in effect arguing for a very different kind of innovation – a ‘disruptive’ innovation, capable of delivering new technologies so superior that they can outcompete incumbents almost instantly without support. But this is a risky idea that is detached from reality.

It is risky because it would mean halting the rapid progress of our current renewables whilst we wait for a magic pill to cure our climate woes. And it is detached from reality because it ignores how most innovation actually happens through incremental improvements and a lot of hard-graft.

None of this means that disruptive innovation isn’t important. It is. And none of it means we shouldn’t increase research and development funding for early stage cleantech. We should. But to bet the farm on an unknown and ignore what we already have would be a disaster.

Now is not the time to abandon the innovation that has served Britain’s cycling team, and our renewable energy technologies, so well.

Sam Friggens is a writer for renewable energy funding platform Abundance Generation. You can follow him on Twitter: @Sam_Friggens. This article originally appeared on Abundance’s blog.

Further reading:

Governments must ‘get’ sustainability to truly capitalise on UK innovation

Cameron: UK can be a ‘global showcase for green innovation’

We need a credible green innovation growth strategy

Keeping the crowd in crowdfunding as ‘big finance’ arrives

Nina Skorupska: we need energy ‘prosumers’ to effect real change

Economy

Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?

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self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/zapp2photo

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.

Deadheading

Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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Economy

New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035

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renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart / https://www.shutterstock.com/g/adrian825

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.

Sources: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-11-06/green-dream-risks-energy-security-as-kiwis-aim-for-zero-carbon

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-hydrocarbons/france-plans-to-end-oil-and-gas-production-by-2040-idUSKCN1BH1AQ

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